Saturday, 24 February 2018


If you take a long look at the Crucifixion Panel in the midst of the great East Window at St Mary’s, you will notice something that, at first, may seem rather curious. A similar arrangement is also visible on the 12th Station of the Cross in All Saints, marking the Death of Jesus. At the foot of the Cross in St Mary’s is a skull, which in All Saints becomes a little pile of bones, and a hill. There are also versions elsewhere that include a pair of broken doors, and sometimes two tiny figures.

When we proclaim the Church’s faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, which we use on most Sundays in the year, we say of Christ, ‘he suffered death, and was buried.’ The Apostles Creed, used at Baptisms, at Evensong and in Eastertide, is a little more explicit, ‘He descended to the dead’, or, He descended into hell’, depending on which version is in use. The early Church knew well the story of the ‘Harrowing (or emptying), of Hell’, which is also referred to in 1 Peter 3.19-20, of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison. By his Death and Resurrection, Christ triumphs over the very depths of evil, and, carrying his glorious Cross, leads us all, in the persons of Adam and Eve, our first parents, to new life. In the imagery of this scene, it is the doors of hell that are broken open, and the dry bones that live again. Christ was crucified in the very place where was the Garden of Eden; that which was lost, is now found and restored.

The Harrowing of Hell shows that there is no part of human experience or existence, that Christ has not shared, and that his saving death and resurrection does not reach. While our contemporary culture may like to think a belief in hell to is, at best, a little old-fashioned, we only have to meditate briefly on the horrors of the last hundred years or so, from the Holocaust to the slaughter of Christian Children in the Middle East, to the damage done to our fragile Planet, to see that hell and evil are very real, and among us. Yet in the words of a Sermon of St John Chrysostom, which is read at our Easter Vigil,

Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and came face to face with heaven. O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?

Images of the Harrowing of Hell remind us that the Cross is empty, that death doesn’t have the last word, and that we need not fear dying. Adam and Eve are forgiven, and so are we, if we are ready.  

May our spiritual journey through Lent to this coming Holy Week lead us from death to life.

Per Crucem (through the Cross)

Fr David

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The Sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

-RS Thomas